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Robert Baird: Ancient insights urge the unselfish good in us

Robert Baird: Ancient insights urge the unselfish good in us

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For a moment, consider Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” his great work in practical philosophy — practical in the sense that it aimed at helping its readers become morally better persons.

Among Aristotle’s insights is his doctrine of the golden mean: his claim that moral behavior is often a mean between two extremes. For example, bravery is behavior between cowardice and foolhardiness. Generosity is behavior between stinginess and extravagance. Moderation in food and drink is the mean between total abstinence and overindulgence. I recently read a piece by a mother of soon-to-be teenagers struggling with how to monitor her children’s use of social media. Wanting to be neither too permissive nor overly prohibitive, she sought to be reasonably accommodating.

In other words, she was seeking Aristotle’s golden mean, and that can be hard work.

Translated to the contemporary political scene, Aristotle would see responsible political behavior as a mean between radical individualism on the one hand, and unthinking group subservience on the other. I emphasize that point with the help of 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill’s best known work, “On Liberty,” is a defense of individual freedom. But that defense is accompanied by his recognition that we also have obligations to others, to the communities to which we belong.

And here’s where things get messy with language because Mill’s strong defense of individual freedom would sometimes today be thought of as conservative.

In fact, in the recent Waco Tribune-Herald-published conversation between George Will, perhaps our country’s best-known political conservative, and retired Trib opinion editor Bill Whitaker, Will says, “when some of your readers and friends call me a liberal, they’re right [in one sense]. As I said ... we conservatives in America have traditionally been inheritors of the great classical liberal tradition taken from John Locke and ... John Stuart Mill [who] believed [in] free markets, limited government, individuals as rights-bearing creatures, etcetera, etcetera — all these things we got from the great liberal tradition.”

The “great liberal tradition” Will references is expressed in the most famous passage of Mill’s “On Liberty.” Paraphrased, here it is: The object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle: The only justification for interfering with the freedom of any member of the community is self-protection. A person’s own good, physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. Individuals cannot rightfully be compelled to do or not to do because it will be better for them, because it will make them happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be the moral thing to do. These are good reasons for arguing with them and trying to persuade them but not for compelling them.

But Mill then adds: To justify compulsion, the goal must be to prevent harm to others.

Reminiscent of Aristotle, I see Mill here pursuing a mean between radical individualism that ignores the common good and political authoritarianism that overbearingly and illegitimately imposes various behaviors on its citizens.

Let me be specific: I think Mill would believe it politically wrong to prohibit individuals from smoking tobacco or marijuana (even if it would be better, wiser and healthier for them not to), but he would likely agree that smoke-free zones should be mandated for the safety of others. Individuals should be free to drink alcoholic beverages, but for the common good not while driving a car. Persons should be free to marry whom they want, but, for everyone’s protection, not until they have reached a certain level of maturity.

Now let us engage in a little imaginative hope. The middle way, Aristotle’s golden mean, should appeal to both genuine conservatives and liberals alike. Sure, conservatives are concerned about political order; they want us to be judicious about who crosses our borders; they want us to be careful in spending tax monies and in governmental borrowing; they want us to proceed carefully with social experiments like physician-assisted death. Liberals, as the term is now used, want us to readily welcome immigrants seeking a better life in this country; they want us through tax-supported health and educational programs to provide a fairer starting point for those who are impoverished; they want us to be more willing to experiment with legalizing marijuana, physician-assisted death and universal health care.

Stated in this spirit of imaginative hope, with liberals and conservatives pursing a moderate, middle way — pursuing the Aristotelian golden mean as it were — the disagreements don’t sound so overwhelming. While challenging, resolutions seem doable, compromise achievable.

But here’s the wrinkle in our imaginative hope. As 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant colorfully expressed it: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”

And so, because we are, each of us, crooked timber, the willingness to pursue the judicial Aristotelian mean, and even agreeing on that mean if we decide to pursue it, is a hard slog. But if we are committed to democratic procedures, the only option is to keep on slogging, trying to balance individual freedom with a concern for the other — that is, with the common good in mind. This is crucial. Crucial because our democracy is at stake, for as George Will pointed out, Jan. 6 was, after all, an insurrection.

And, oh my, how all of this is being played out with regard to COVID-19 vaccinations. In the name of individual freedom, our governor not only rejects state-mandated vaccinations, he also has issued an executive order aimed at preventing private businesses from doing so.

I’m convinced even the greatest defender of individual freedom, John Stuart Mill, would, for the sake of the common good, support such vaccination mandates. It is the politically moderate (think Aristotle’s golden mean) thing to do.

Robert Baird is emeritus professor of philosophy at Baylor University.

Aristotle would see responsible political behavior as a mean between radical individualism on the one hand, and unthinking group subservience on the other.


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